If for some strange reason you would ever want to get horse racing’s most valuable talker to clam up, ask him one question.
Ask Bob Baffert about the possibility of tying the legendary Ben Jones for the most Kentucky Derby victories by a trainer.
“I don’t think about that,” answered Baffert the other day on the Churchill Downs backside with a facial expression of someone who had just bitten into something sour. “We just want to win the Derby. I hate when I’m going for some record or something like that. Seems we get stuck.”
Oh, Bob Baffert is stuck all right. The world’s most famous trainer is stuck with the top three contenders — so says the morning line — for the 145th running as he attempts to secure the roses for the second straight year and the sixth overall.
“It’s been sort of a nice week, not having the favorite,” said Baffert on Thursday.
That changed with Wednesday’s news that favorite Omaha Beach was being scratched because of a trapped epiglottis discovered when a cough prompted trainer Richard Mandella to have the colt scoped.
“I was sick to my stomach,” said Baffert, who got the news via a phone call from jockey Mike Smith. “I feel so bad for Richard Mandella. He’s a friend and was so excited about his horse.”
After Omaha Beach’s defection, Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia placed Game Winner, trained by Baffert, as the 9-2 favorite. Roadster, trained by Baffert, and Improbable, trained by Baffert, are co-second choices at 5-1.
“I think the race is still wide open,” Baffert said. “I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty favorite.”
If one of Baffert’s trio finds the finish line first, he matches the iconic Jones, who trained six Kentucky Derby winners from 1938 through 1952. Jones trained 1938 winner Lawrin for Woolford Farm in Prairie Village, Kansas, before being hired away by Calumet Farm’s Warren S. Wright. Jones trained Derby winners Whirlaway (1941), Pensive (1944), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949) and Hill Gail (1952) for Calumet. Whirlaway and Citation each won the Triple Crown.
Then a young man of 44, Baffert won his first Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm. He’s repeated the feat with Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharaoh (2015) and Justify (2018). American Pharoah and Justify each won the Triple Crown.
His chances of going back-to-back a second time?
Last year’s 2-year-old champion, Game Winner is a “fullback,” according to Baffert. The son of Candy Ride won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs. He has posted a pair of runner-up finishes this year, including a 1-length loss to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby.
Bred by Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm, Roadster was considered the apple of Baffert’s eye as a 2-year-old. After his third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity last September, however, Roadster underwent surgery to correct a throat problem. He didn’t race again until March 1 when he won an allowance race before winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
“Roadster is real light, lean,” said Baffert of the son of Quality Road. “He gets over the ground well.”
Improbable boasts the same connections as Justify. Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing, the son of City Zip tracked but could not pass Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.
“I think Improbable’s real strength is his stride,” said Elliott Walden, WinStar’s CEO and racing manager. “That’s always beneficial in a race like the Kentucky Derby because of the distance and the demands of the race.”
Speaking of owners, this is the third time Baffert has entered three different horses in the Derby. He did so in 1999 and 2006 and came up empty each time. His owners this time around are Peter Fluor and K.C. Weiner of Speedway Stable (Roadster), Gary and Mary West (Game Winner) as well as the Improbable group.
“They’re all happy to be here,” Baffert said. “That’s the beauty of the Derby, the night before everybody feels like they have a chance to win the Derby.”
Just don’t get stuck asking Bob Baffert about winning it a sixth time.
145th Kentucky Derby
When: 6:50 p.m. Saturday
Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville
Purse: $3 million (Grade 1)
Distance: 1 1/4 miles (dirt)
Most Derby wins
Trainers with the most Kentucky Derby wins:
Ben Jones (6): Jones’ wins came from 11 Derby starters between 1938 and 1952 — Lawrin (1938), Whirlaway (’41), Pensive (’44), Citation (’48), Ponder (’49) and Hill Gail (’52).
Bob Baffert (5): Baffert’s wins have come from 29 Derby starters between 1996 and 2018 — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (’98), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (’15) and Justify (’18).
Herbert J. Thompson (4): Thompson’s wins came from 26 Derby starters between 1920 and 1937 — Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (’26), Burgoo King (’32) and Brokers Tip (’33).
D. Wayne Lukas (4): Lukas’ wins have come from 49 Derby starters between 1981 and 2018 — Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (’95), Grindstone (’96) and Charismatic (’99).
James Fitzsimmons (3): Fitzsimmons’ wins came from 11 Derby starters between 1930 and 1957 — Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (’35) and Johnstown (’39).
Max Hirsch (3): Hirsch’s wins came from 14 Derby starters between 1915 and 1951 — Bold Venture (1936), Assault (’46) and Middleground (’50).